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Design

How to Design a Retro Christmas Postcard in Adobe Illustrator

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Difficulty:IntermediateLength:LongLanguages:
Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

Call me old-fashioned, but there’s nothing nicer than receiving a thoughtful card in the mail, especially during the holidays. So we’re going to create a fun, retro postcard that you can actually get printed (or buy blank cards and print yourself) to send to far-away family and friends.

We’ll be using Illustrator’s built-in drawing tools to create simple vector illustrations and giving our design some mid-century flair with retro fonts and inky textures. Alternatively, if you'd like to speed up and simplify the process, you can pick up some ready-made, retro-style ornaments and Christmas tree vectors.

Along the way, I’ll include suggestions for colors and other settings if you’d like to duplicate the results you see here, but feel free to change those to let your own style shine through. Let’s get started!

1. Set Up Your Workspace in Illustrator

Step 1

Go to File > New and open a new document according to the settings below; I’m using a standard U.S. postcard size. Also, if you're planning on printing your finished postcard, make sure to create two artboards for both a front and back side.

New document options

I’ve chosen to set the color mode to RGB so the project will display well on screen. But if you intend to print your finished postcard, you’ll want to convert the final file to CMYK to ensure the colors come out right during printing. Our Beginner’s Guide to Prepping and Sending to Print also has some great tips.

Step 2

Next, we’ll install our color palette for the design. I’ve included a file in this tutorial’s attachment. After we install it, the color swatches we need for the design will pop right up in Illustrator.

Go to Windows > Swatches or select the Swatches icon from your panels toolbar. Click the button in the upper right corner of the Swatches window, and in the drop-down menu that appears, select Open Swatch Library > Other Library.

Open Swatch Library menu

Find where you’ve saved the attachment on your computer, then select christmas-postcard-palette.ase and click Open.

And there you have it. I’ve assigned each swatch a name and included the hex codes for easy reference:

List of colors and hex codes for the color palette

Each time we use a color, I’ll list both its name and hex code at first mention, and then refer to it just by its name going forward.

Step 3

Open the Layers panel. Arranging your layers ahead of time will help you stay organized during the design process and make certain steps much faster and easier. You can set them up according to the order you see below. To name a layer, just double-click on it—a Layer Options box will pop up where you can type in a new title.

Layers panel showing all the layers for this tutorial

Step 4

As the final step of setting up, you might want to download the assets we'll be using in the design. That way, you won’t have to pause and install them later. You can find links to each free resource below: 

First, the fonts:

And the texture brushes:

2. Create the Background

Step 1

Zoom in to the top artboard; we’ll be doing the front side of the postcard first. Using the Rectangle Tool, fill the whole card with the lightest shade of blue (mint / #D4EBE2). Make sure to extend the background all the way to the red bleed lines, especially if you’re planning on printing the postcard.

Step 2

For the snowy hillside part of the background, use the Pen Tool to draw a curving shape in white. If you find the Pen Tool troublesome, you can try drawing the shape freehand with the Pencil Tool or Paintbrush Tool.

White hillside drawn with the Pen Tool

With any of these techniques, if your curve doesn’t turn out quite as smooth as you would like, you can use the Smooth Tool (click-hold the Pencil Tool to access it) to clean it up—just hold and drag the cursor across the path on any crooked or bumpy spots.

3. Add the Greeting

Step 1

Download the fonts linked above if you haven’t already. We’ll be adding the greeting “Have a Merry and Bright Christmas” (but feel free to change it to another phrase if you’re so inclined), working from the bottom up.

Step 2

In the Text layer, type out ‘Christmas’ using the font Engagement at 85 pt. Change the color to red / #EF4428. Position it above the hillside on the right side of the postcard.

Christmas word added

Step 3

Next, type out ‘BRIGHT’ in all capital letters using the font Gone. Adjust the size so it matches the width of ‘Christmas’—this should be about 40 pt. Position it right above ‘Christmas’ and change the color to the darkest green option (evergreen / #2B9690).

Then, type out ‘MERRY’ above ‘BRIGHT’, using the same font and color and leaving some space in between the two words. Again, make ‘MERRY’ the same width as the other two words; it will be a bit larger than ‘BRIGHT’ at about 45 pt.

Merry Bright Christmas

Step 4

Lastly, using the font Go Long at 35 pt, type out ‘HAVE A’ in capital letters and center it above ‘MERRY’. In the Character panel, set the tracking to 100 to space the letters a little farther apart. Make the color turquoise / #77CCC8.

Type out ‘AND’ using the same size and color as above and center it between ‘MERRY’ and ‘BRIGHT’. Set the tracking to 50. If you like, you can add a little extra retro personality by selecting ‘AND’ and going to Type > Create Outlines, and then selecting Object > Ungroup. Now you can adjust each letter to a different height (see below).

Have a Merry and Bright Christmas

Step 5

Now for the finishing touches to the text… If needed, adjust the vertical spacing between the words. There should be roughly the same amount of space between each word, but it doesn't have to be exact—just do whatever looks right visually. You can also add some triangular shapes or other simple embellishments on either side of ‘AND’ to fill in those gaps.

When you’re done, you should end up with something like this:

Triangular shapes added either side of AND

4. Draw Some Trees

Now it’s time for some fun illustrations. We’re using a loose, angular style inspired by the 1950s and 60s. This mid-century aesthetic is purposely a little rough and imperfect—that’s part of its charm. We’re replicating a style that was originally created with design elements that were hand-drawn, hand-painted, or cut from paper and pasted together. 

So I’d encourage you to work fairly quickly as you’re drawing the trees (and later, adding other objects and embellishments); let that spontaneity come through in the design and don’t worry too much about making everything perfectly straight or symmetrical. Above all, have fun with it!

Step 1

Go to the Trees layer. Use the Pen Tool to create a simple pine-tree shape (basically an elongated diamond with a rectangle coming out the bottom). If necessary, adjust the size so it fits well between ‘Christmas’ and the right edge of the postcard. Make the color light green / #79C9B4.

Tree added

If you want to go with an even more minimal style, you can leave off the trunks and just create some tall, skinny triangles to represent the trees.

Step 2

Create a few more trees and group them on the other side of ‘Christmas.’ I used the light green again, along with the turquoise for a little contrast. Select the green trees and change the Opacity to 45%; make the turquoise tree a little darker at 60%.

More trees added

Step 3

Now we’re going to create some tree branches coming from the left side of the postcard. The colors for these will be turquoise and evergreen.

For the first one, select the Pen Tool again—if you’re not too familiar with this tool, I’ll walk you through the steps, since we'll being doing a little more than clicking in some straight line as we did for the trees: 

  • Set your first anchor point on the left bleed line, near the upper corner. 
  • To give the top of the branch a slight downward curve, set your second anchor point lower than the first one and about three-quarters of the way across to ‘MERRY’. As you place that second point, click and hold, moving the cursor upwards slowly until the curve takes a shape that you like.
  • Then, still using the Pen Tool, click on the anchor point that ends your curve to convert it into a sharp corner.
  • Now keep going with the tool to create a series of lines and angles to represent pine needles on the branch, moving up and down back toward the corner where you started. Do this somewhat quickly and randomly, varying the lengths and widths of the needle shapes.
Tree branches added

Step 4

Repeat that process to create a second branch. I chose to have the second one curve upward to overlap with the first branch. Select both and change the Opacity to 55%.

Reduced Opacity

5. Add Texture to the Background

Step 1

If you haven’t installed the texture brushes yet, do that now. Open them up and select one of the brushes; I like Scatter Brush 9 (the last one). Change the stroke color to white and the Stroke Weight to 0.25 pt.

Step 2

First we’ll add some texture behind the Christmas greeting, so go to the Background Textures layer. Using the shape of the text as a guide, draw some circular swirls and lines using the Paintbrush Tool with the texture brush you selected. If you’re having trouble seeing what you’re doing, make the Text layer invisible temporarily by clicking on the eye icon to the left of the layer name.

Make your lines more concentrated in the center and further apart as you move out toward the edges of the text. I’ve included a shot with the text cleared away so you can see what the strokes might look like. But there's no need to try to copy that exact placement; just scribble a handful of lines behind the text until you get an effect that you like. 

In terms of size, you should end up with a rough circle that sits between the pine trees and extends up to the top of the postcard and down to the hillside.

add some texture behind the Christmas greeting

Step 3 

In the Layers panel, select everything in the Background Texture layer by clicking the open circle to the right of the layer name. Then change the Opacity to 60%.

Here’s what you’ll end up with:

Reduced Opacity

I also added a bit of a shadow to the embellishments on either side of ‘AND’ to help them stand out a little better against the background texture. If you’d like to do the same, select both shapes, copy them (Command/Control-C), and Paste in Front (Edit > Paste in Front or Command/Control-F). Then change to a color of your choice; I went with the same color as the sky. Use your arrow keys to nudge the colored shapes a little to one side of the white ones.

Step 4

Now, still working in the Background Textures layer, we’ll add some texture to the snow using the same method. 

This time, I chose Scatter Brush 14 from our brush set. Change the stroke color to mint and the Stroke Weight to 0.25 pt. Using the Paintbrush Tool, draw a couple of squiggly lines under the trees on each side of ‘Christmas’. Select both lines and change the Opacity to 50%.

add some texture to the snow using the same method

6. Add Texture to the Trees

On to the trees. We’ll be using the same texture brush technique plus an extra step to clip the textures to the shape of the trees and branches. At first, the textures will look really messy, but don’t worry—we’ll get it straightened out in no time.

Step 1 

Go to the Tree Textures layer. Pick a texture brush (I’m still using Scatter Brush 14) and make sure the Stroke Weight is still set at 0.25 pt. Make the stroke color light green.

Step 2

Draw some curved or angled lines along the edges of the three green trees with the Paintbrush Tool. We don’t want the textures to completely cover the trees, just to accent an edge or corner. Then change the color to evergreen and do the same for the middle tree in the group of three.

For the Opacity, change the green textures to 70% and evergreen one to 50%. You’ll have something like this:

Curved lines added on trees

Step 3 

Now we’ll go through some steps to trim the textures so they fit the shape of the trees. 

Return to the Trees layer and select all four trees (leave the branches alone for now). You can hold down Shift to select more than one object at once. Hit Command/Control-C to copy them, then lock the Trees layer—in the Layers panel, to the left of that layer’s name, you’ll see an empty square. Click on it, and a small padlock icon will appear.

Step 4

Click into the Tree Textures layer and select Paste in Front. More tree shapes will appear on top of the trees and textures you’ve already created. With the help of a handy tool called a clipping mask, we’ll use these extra tree shapes like a stamp or cookie cutter to remove the bits of texture that extend beyond the outline of the trees.

Select one of the trees and the texture that goes with it by holding down Shift as you click on them, and then go to Object > Clipping Mask > Make. You can see the result below: the single tree on the right has had the clipping mask applied… Neat, isn’t it?

Trees with clipping mask applied

Step 5

Repeat the process of applying a clipping mask to the remaining three trees, one at a time. To speed this up, you can use the keyboard shortcut for creating clipping masks, which is Command/Control-7.

Let’s check out our progress… It’s starting to come together!

The card so far

7. Add Texture to the Branches

Now you should have a pretty good handle on this texture + clipping mask process—but if not, you get a little more practice! We’re going to be using the same exact steps for the branches.

Step 1

Again using Scatter Brush 14 at 0.25 pt, draw a line that roughly follows the curve at the top of each branch. The first/top one is in turquoise at 100% opacity and the second is in evergreen at 70% opacity.

Drawing lines on the branches with the Scatter Brush

Step 2 

Go to the Trees layer and unlock it by clicking on the padlock icon. Select both the branches at once and copy them, then re-lock the layer. Go to the Tree Textures layer and Paste in Front

Step 3 

Apply clipping masks to the branch textures with the extra branch shapes you just pasted in. (If you need a quick reminder: select one branch with its matching texture at a time, holding down Shift, and then hit Command/Control-7.)

Here’s what we’ve got:

The card so far

8. Hang Some Ornaments

Now it’s time to trim the tree with some colorful, retro ornaments. In addition to the tools and techniques we’ve covered already, we’ll be using the Ellipse Tool and some of Illustrator’s built-in brushes.

First, let’s walk through the steps to create the base shape for our first ornament:

Step 1 

Go to the Red Ornament layer. Draw a narrow oval in red; mine is approximately 155 px wide. The height doesn’t matter much, since we mostly want it to fit nicely width-wise between the left edge of the card and the group of trees.

Step 2

Now we'll transform this plain oval into a ornament with just a few easy actions. Each step that follows is illustrated in the image below. 

  • Click on the red oval.
  • Select the Convert Anchor Point Tool with a click-hold on the Pen Tool—it’s the last option in the menu that pops up. With this tool, click on the top and bottom anchor points on the oval; this will change the smooth points into sharp ones. 
  • Now, from the same menu, select the Add Anchor Point Tool and add in extra anchor points roughly halfway between each of the four existing points. 
  • Now choose the Direct Selection Tool and, one at a time, click on the top and bottom anchor points again and drag them slightly outwards.
transform this plain oval into a ornament

Now we have an authentic retro ornament shape. Place in on the left side of the postcard below the branches.

Place the ornament shape on the card

Step 3

Now repeat those steps to create a second ornament, making sure you’re now in the Pink Ornament layer. The process will be exactly the same, except the orientation of the shape will be vertical instead of horizontal:

repeat those steps to create a second ornament

Adjust the size and placement of this second ornament in a way that looks good to you. I like it overlapping a bit with the red ornament.

9. Add Some Texture and Embellishments to the Ornaments

Step 1 

First, we want to add some texture around the edges of the ornaments. Go to the Ornament Textures layer and repeat the same technique we’ve been using so far, with texture brushes and clipping masks.

As before, I used Scatter Brush 14 here at 0.25 pt. This time, the Opacity for both stays at 100%. 

add some texture around the edges of the ornaments

When you’re done, lock this layer.

Step 2 

Return to the Red Ornament layer. Use the Rectangle Tool to create a white band across the width of the ornament. Or if you want to opt for a more retro look, use the Pen Tool to draw a slightly crooked geometric shape. Whichever you choose, make sure the shape extends beyond the edges of the ornament.

Now select the base shape underneath, copy it, and Paste in Front. Select both the ornament shape and the white rectangle peeking out from underneath it, and then go to the Pathfinder panel and choose Crop. This will trim the white band to the shape of the ornament.

Creating the ornament

Step 3

Go to the Embellishments layer. Use the Ellipsis Tool to draw a couple of ovals, and stack them on the pink ornament. I used the Direct Selection Tool to move some of the anchor points and make them a little lopsided. The blue oval in my version is our aquamarine color / #B1DED8.

Blue oval added

I also chose to add some texture to the inner oval to create a little depth, but feel free to skip this step if you want.

Step 4

Now, using one of Illustrator’s built-in calligraphic brushes, we’ll draw some strings to make it look as if the ornaments are hanging from the branches. I chose an oval brush because it has some width variation that makes it look a little more as if it was drawn with an actual brush.

In the Brushes panel, click the Brush Libraries Menu button in the bottom left-hand corner, then select Artistic > Artistic_Calligraphic > 3 pt. Oval. Change the stroke size to 0.5 pt. Now select the Brush Tool. You’ll find that it’s easier to draw the vertical portion of the string first (holding down Shift as you do to keep it perfectly straight), and then add the bow on top separately.

Add the bow

Step 5

We’re almost done! Now it’s time to add some festive decorations your ornaments. For mine, I used the same oval brush to draw some loops and lines, and either the Ellipse Tool or the oval brush to add some dots of color here and there. 

Some stars, stripes, or zig-zags might also be fun—play around with different embellishments, or feel free to copy what you see here.

Festive decorations added

10. Add a Back Side (Optional) 

If you’re planning on printing and mailing your postcard, you might want to add a couple of embellishments to the reverse side. I kept mine simple with a greeting and a dividing line to separate the area for writing from the space for the address, along with a smaller version of the group of three trees from the front side.

Back side of card

Awesome Work, You're Done!

I hope you’ve had fun using brushes, textures, opacity settings, and other tools to create a layered, illustrative look for this retro Christmas postcard. I always like finding ways to make digital projects a look a little less computer-generated and a little more personalized and handcrafted, and many the techniques we’ve used in this tutorial are a great way to do that. 

Feel free to share how your project turned out or ask questions in the comments section. Happy designing!

Final retro Christmas card
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